Rutgers and the Big Ten transition

BY KEVIN GLUECK | MAY 07, 2014 5:00 AM

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Future Big Ten member Rutgers’ public-relations team is at it again.

Former Scarlet Knight defensive end Eric LeGrand was set to deliver the Rutgers’ commencement speech in 12 days. After flip-flopping on former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivering the speech, it seemed like the right move to call upon one of the university’s most celebrated public faces in LeGrand.

LeGrand was paralyzed from the neck down after making a tackle on special teams against Army in 2010. Since then, LeGrand has become one of the most inspirational athletes in sports — regaining movement of his shoulders and sensation in his body. He’s turned his story into a public-speaking career, so the choice of LeGrand as the replacement for Rice seemed fitting.

But 48 hours after extending the opportunity to its most visible alum in years, Rutgers rescinded its offer “for political reasons.” The Big Ten’s most recent addition has since released a statement saying LeGrand will speak at the commencement ceremony — but the damage has been done, and another PR nightmare is on the hands of the university.

Rutgers’ instability as an athletics institution and university over the past couple of years is something Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany should worry about. The reputation of its newest member and how it handles its affairs is in question yet again as July 1 — the day the move to its new conference becomes official — looms closer.

The history speaks for itself.

The physical and verbal abuse former men’s basketball coach Mike Rice used on his players was ignored after an initial report was filed in the summer of 2012. When the accusation went public on ESPN’s "Outside the Lines," then-Athletics Director Tim Pernetti went only as far as suspending Rice. An FBI investigation and a separate in-house investigation led to the coach’s dismissal after public backlash and pressure on school President Robert Barchi.

Pernetti’s replacement, Julie Hermann, has failed in the public-relations department as well. Her laundry list of blunders include accusations of abusing players as a volleyball coach at Tennessee, ties to a sexual-discrimination lawsuit stemming from her time at Louisville, and her statement to a journalism class this year that it would be great if the Star-Ledger, a publication that has been critical of her, shut down.

And now, Rutgers will join the likes of Maryland and Nebraska in the new age of conference shifting. There’s no denying that the Scarlet Knights and Terrapins bring in two valuable TV markets — and the money that follows — to one of sports media’s most lucrative channels, the Big Ten Network.

It’s clear that the Big Ten is trying to build a presence in the eastern United States, whether it be the addition of Maryland and Rutgers, the new Big Ten-Big East basketball tipoff series, or the decision to hold the Big Ten Tournament in Washington, D.C., in 2017. But at what cost does this push to the east come for the Big Ten?

Fifty-four days till Piscataway becomes Big Ten country. Jim Delany, you’re on the clock.

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